Since living in Panama, I've become very laissez-faire about traffic cops. The traffic rules here are more suggestions than black and white laws, and I am not as crazy of a driver as the locals. Even though I've driven the wrong way on one-way streets, backed up on the on-ramp to a freeway (okay, I was a passenger in the car for this one), and flipped a u-turn in areas that were not made for u-turns, everything has been "no problem."
There is one thing I have learned about driving in Panama that is "muy importante"....be extra careful on holiday weekends. A gringo acquaintance of mine was pulled over on a holiday weekend. Even though he'd been drinking water for almost 2 hours before driving, he had to bribe his way out of a DUI to the tune of $300.
Knowing this, I spent the Saturday on Mardi Gras weekend at Playa Bonita, enjoying free drinks and making new friends. My Latin sweetheart knew he had to drive and spent the day drinking water. (He's a much better person than I am!) Leaving the Playa Bonita resort, we were pulled over at a permanent checkpoint ... one that I usually breeze through because of my Gringa face. The cop asked for the standard license and registration, but my Brazilian sweetheart had left his passport and drivers license in Panama City. The cop knew my boyfriend was sober, but I'm sure the cop was thinking about rent or buying beer for his friends or perhaps sending his kids to college. Whatever the motivation, he asked my boyfriend to step out of the car and took him across the street, where he had to sit in a hard plastic chair.
It's important to note at this point in my blog-story that I barely speak Spanish, the cop didn't speak English, and although my boyfriend looks like a Southern California boy, his only fluent language is Portuguese. That alone would make any negotiation very difficult, but I knew it had to work in our favor as a bribe was about to be sought.
Taking the language barrier into account, this is what I think happened. The cop threatened to tow the car and send us all to jail. He said he could make it go away for a mere $60. That actually would have been fine had we been in possession of $60 cash, but as soon as we were pulled over, we looked at each other and compared our cash situation. I had a $5 bill and he had two $1 bills. Seven dollars does not a good bribe make. Hmmm. That's where my Brazilian sweetheart's "street dog" instinct kicked in.
He told the cop that we didn't have $60, but we would give him $50--but the money was in the car. The cop agreed to a $50 "fee" and let him get back in the car before coming around to my side of the car to collect his bribe. I knew none of this at the time, but I didn't need a medium to tell me that I'd have to give up my last $5 before the night was over. I had it clutched in my hand, ready to give it to the greedy cop. After all, I'd had free drinks all day and this was all part of the day's entertainment.
When my sweetheart was belted back in the car, he rolled down my window and said, "Drop cash." This was a bit of an inside joke because he'd taught my dog to "drop ball" in one day after I'd spent an entire year trying to get her to do the exact same thing. And even after he'd taught her to drop the darn ball, she wouldn't do it for me because she understood his accented English better than my perfect English. Oh, but I digress at the best part of the story.
I have never been party to a bribe before, so when my sweetheart told me to "drop cash" I thought that's how bribes were done. I crumpled the $5 bill in my hand and dropped it out the window. The bill had no sooner left my hand when we were peeling out of the checkpoint. I didn't understand the hurry, until my boyfriend explained that we had beaten the cops at their own shakedown.
I laughed so hard all the way back to my apartment that tears were rolling down my face. But when I told a friend of mine the story, he was worried that the cops would have my photo and description of my car at the checkpoint, ready to pull me over the next time I drove through. I just laughed again. Even though bribery is much more common here than in the U.S., it's still not technically legal. The cops aren't going to run the risk of exposure by harassing a sweet innocent Gringa. (Now it's your turn not to laugh!)
Knowing that cops might expect a bribe, here's a quick guide on what to do if you're pulled over.
- Always carry a valid drivers license from your country of residence and a photocopy of your passport. Show these documents when asked.
- Don't worry if you don't speak Spanish. This can work in your favor.
- Keep a $20 bill in your passport, just in case you were doing something bad. You can always ask, "Can I take care of the fine now?" The $20 will often do the trick.
- Never try to bribe a female cop.
- Keep the phone number of a good Panamanian attorney on your speed dial... just in case you really were doing something bad! If you need one, I can recommend a few.
All in all, I feel like a true native of Panama now. If you're laughing along with me, Panama might be a great place for you.